Parliament’s Budget

28 May 2019

MR MORRIS (Mornington) (17:34:25): It is interesting to hear from the member for Broadmeadows.

 

Without pursuing that theme too closely, while I accept and agree with much of his comments in terms of the need for truth in debate, I am not sure that the impact of technology is perhaps as extreme as he may have been suggesting. I suspect that while technology has changed, the tactics have not. Perhaps technology amplifies the impact of the tactics, but when all is said and done the arguments are still there.

Certainly when misinformation is fed into debate it needs to be called out, and when mistruths are fed into debate—from whichever side they come—they need to be called out. I think that is one of the critical reasons for keeping a Parliament, not just this Parliament but keeping any Parliament, as a strong institution.

 

If we allow this Parliament or any Parliament in Australia or elsewhere in the world to become mere rubber stamps, to become simply electoral colleges for the election of the executive, then our democracy is under threat.

 

That is an important thing, and it is certainly something we do need to keep in the front of our minds when we are talking about how we resource this Parliament. It is an important issue and one worthy of consideration.

 

However, the bill before us, as I said, is about resourcing this Parliament.

 

In terms of the summary, Schedule 1, the total amount is $160.7 million this year, up modestly from $154.2 million in the previous year. Obviously if you go to budget paper 3 and look at the figures in there, there are some significant differences—not least of course because with the Parliament, and I think other members may have touched on this, there are significant other sources.

 

I think the explanatory memorandum actually talks about the special appropriations—yes, it does—and they are particularly significant in terms of the resourcing of the Parliament.

 

With regard to this bill we see significant increases in terms of the vote going to the Legislative Assembly; considerable increases in the vote going to the Legislative Council; significantly less going to parliamentary committees, and I will certainly come back to that; Parliamentary Services is well above CPI, and I will touch on a few matters related to that in a few minutes; and there is a significant reduction in the amount going to the Auditor-General.

 

I have not had the opportunity in this Parliament to talk to the Auditor-General about his budget—I do not need to anymore—but I understand from the member for Gippsland South’s contribution earlier that the Auditor-General is in fact quite comfortable with the amount allocated and it is not what it may appear to be on the surface, the best part of a 20 per cent cut.

 

And of course the Parliamentary Budget Office is a similar figure to last year. Can I say in passing that I think the Parliamentary Budget Office has done an excellent job in its first year of operation. Having been involved in the selection of the principal office-holder, I am probably aware more than most members of the size of the task that has been accomplished in the last year or so. The task has been accomplished and the objectives are being met.

 

That is a very good outcome for all, but perhaps most importantly the process has occurred without any concern being expressed by the political participants about the work being done by the office. I think that is a useful innovation.

 

Can I do, as I have frequently had the opportunity to do—and really it is the only time we get a chance to do it—to acknowledge the terrific support members get from so many people in carrying out our duties. The clerks provide impartial advice, perhaps not always seen by us as impartial, but the fact that it is probably seen by both sides as leaning the other way or not leaning their way as often as they would like, which is perhaps a better way of putting it, or a more accurate way of putting it, indicates that that objective is being met.

 

Of course the chamber continues to run relatively smoothly and I acknowledge the comments of others about the operation of the chamber and the manner in which members have conducted themselves in this Parliament relative to others. I probably think it is caused by perhaps a different reason than has been attributed, but perhaps we do not need to go into that now.

 

I would also like to acknowledge the rest of the chamber staff and of course all those in the procedures office. That of course is a very different task now with a lot less paper going through, and that is a good thing. I think most people are being weaned off paper by now, or vast quantities of it, and that is obviously good for the environment, but it is properly made us a lot more efficient as well.

And of course there are our attendants. There are our Hansard reporters. Others have spoken of Hansard and the terrific job they do. When people talk about Hansard and the job they do, sometimes it sounds like the speeches are being airbrushed or perhaps words are being put in our mouth that we may not have used. I think we need to go back to their reason for being, and that is to report what people think they heard rather than the precise words that are being said. Hansard do that job very, very well. I can only think of one or two occasions in my 12½ years in this place when there has any dispute about whether the Hansard record was in fact accurate. That speaks for itself, so I do thank the Hansard reporters.

 

The library staff do a great job. I think it was the member for Macedon who mentioned that in another era they would be perhaps the premier source of information. Obviously we now get much of our information from many different places, but the library staff provide an absolutely essential service through the research they do and the work they do with the media and everything else. Libraries, I certainly hope, will have a very long ongoing history, not just in institutions like this but as a very important part of a civilised nation. I certainly think the work that our library staff do stands me in good stead in that regard.

 

There is the IT unit. When you look at the presentation from last year to the Public Accounts and Estimates Committee, there is somewhere between a 60 per cent and 90 per cent increase in usage year on year in terms of demand but absolutely amazing figures in terms of inbound emails that needed to be blocked. If we go back to October 2017, close to 1.6 million emails needed to be blocked out of a total received of 2.2 million. That is something like 70 per cent of the emails coming through needing to be blocked, with minimal inconvenience to members and staff.

 

Again, there is an increase in terms of demand and enormous increases in web streaming. There is an incredible number of hacking attempts—weekly attacks on the Parliament website. This is one that caught my eye: on 22 March last year there were 3626 attacks on the parliamentary website in one week—and that goes on week in and week out. Basically we are all oblivious to those things. Occasionally the system gets a bit slow and occasionally it is not as great as we would like it to be, but the IT staff do a terrific job.

 

Similarly there is our security staff. When I was first elected to this place the security presence was significantly lower than it is now. The world 12½ years ago was a very different place. We now have, necessarily, a much higher level of security. When you go back to the figures from last year, out of 104 000 visitors coming through in a period of about 11 months there were 12 690 items seized—that is, one in 10 people were carrying an item that was not able to be brought into the Parliament. Again it was done with minimal disruption to our operations and basically invisible to us.

 

I also want to acknowledge the committee staff. Many of them have different roles, and I will come back to that if time permits. I do not know how many committees I have been on in the time I have been there in the Parliament, but they have served us exceptionally well.

 

I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the security and electorate properties unit and Sam Matthews. They do a great job. Nicole and Grant look after us all very, very well, and we know the challenges they sometimes face with landlords when they are obtaining offices, but certainly I have had a terrific experience over the last 12 and a half years, and I know many of my colleagues have had the same seamless experience.

 

I did want to speak briefly about the changes to committees and the cut to the committee budget. The investigatory committee budget is down 23 per cent. I simply want to make the point that I am profoundly disappointed with the changes that have occurred.

 

The Victorian parliamentary committee system has been dumbed down, and it does not serve the Parliament well to have a dumbed down parliamentary committee system. Contrast the approach that has been taken by the current administration with the approach that Steve Bracks, for example, took and the investments that he made in committees and the extra money that he put into the Public Accounts and Estimates Committee. He saw the committee system as being an essential part of a strong Parliament and a strong democratic system, and we weaken our committee system at our peril.

 

Look at what is occurring with public accounts and estimates—and obviously I had some considerable time, over eight years, in the estimates process; far too many hours to even add up—and have a look at the schedule that is proposed for this particular set of estimates hearings.

 

The Minister for Education comes on at 4 o’clock on a Friday afternoon and he is there until half past 6. Then the Minister for Training and Skills comes on at 7.30 and is there until 9.30 on a Friday night. The following Tuesday we have the Minister for Consumer Affairs, Gaming and Liquor Regulation in from 6.30 until 7.30, then we have the Minister for Small Business in from 7.40 until 9.15 at night. Now that is just ridiculous. The minister at the table, the Minister for Crime Prevention, is at 7.15 on a Friday night. We have been through the process here of sitting until 10 o’clock at night and sometimes much, much longer, and we all know how difficult that can be for us as members and for the chamber staff. It simply does not work well, even though we are able to come in and out of the chamber and one of us is on our feet at a time.

 

In the estimates hearings it is intense and it is full on. It is full on for the ministers, but they are in and out, but for the participants, for the committee members—and particularly I say for the opposition committee members, because I have been on both sides and it is a vastly different experience as an opposition member—it is just going to make it impossible to do the job. The members of the Public Accounts and Estimates Committee in these estimates hearings will not be able to do their job physically. They will just be worn out.

The first couple of days will be fine, but you need to pace yourself, and when you set a schedule as this schedule has been set you simply cannot achieve that.

 

Whatever you say about estimates —and yes, there is lots of theatre —the point is that that is the central accountability stone on which the estimates is built. Ministers know they have to defend their programs when they go into estimates, and if you change the system so that it ceases to be an opportunity to examine government plans, then the democratic system is weakened—and weakened very badly.